Has software eliminated the need for filters in the field?

By Becky Chapman

When I started in photography, the in-camera exposure was one of the most critical aspects of the image. Now when I am out in the field shooting with other photographers, I hear “it doesn’t have to be a perfect exposure, you can always clean it up in post” all the time. So, the question arises, how perfect does the exposure need to be to make a beautiful image?

It used to be “processing time” was bringing the film to be developed. Now we are spending countless hours at the computer tweaking an image to get it right after the fact. The fact is that filters played a very big role in getting the exposure correct in camera and we spent our time in the field picking the right filters, adjusting exposure and figuring out what was needed to get it right. Since we can now achieve the same results with the software available, who wants to take all that time in the field?

You can certainly add creative filters in post, including colored filters, star filters, graduated neutral density filters and other compensating filters that we once had to use at the time of the shoot. There is still a lot to be said for getting it right in camera. Using a graduated neutral density filter in the field may keep you from having to shoot several frames for a HDR image. Using a color enhancing filter at sunset can give stunning results without having to play with it on the computer and it is very satisfying to get a fantastic image with minimal post effort.

There are still some filters that are an absolute must to have in your camera bag, especially if you are shooting landscape images. The first being a polarizing filter. When you are shooting any water images, a polarizer is crucial to remove the reflections and glare from the surface of the water. There is no amount of post processing you can do to remove a reflection from a stream when you are trying to get the detail of the rocks below the surface. That is something that, at the time of this writing, is simply not available once the image is shot.

A neutral density (solid) is also a must in my bag. If you are shooting a waterfall on a bright, sunny day, you are going to have a very hard time getting the water to get the beautiful wispy look you want even with the ISO dropped as far as possible with the fstop all the way down. ND filters also allow for very interesting cloud movement shots that are simply not possible as a single shot in camera.

I do like to have a split ND filter as well, although it is becoming less frequently used due to some limitations. With a graduated ND, you have the linear separation (even if it is graduated) and very often, your scene does not have a linear separation. If you are shooting a straight horizon, like at the beach shooting the ocean sunset, it is fine. If you are in the mountains or shooting a skyline, the linear nature of the filter is limiting. HRD processing is getting so much cleaner and less “crunchy” now, so that will typically be my choice in those situations.

When it comes down to the absolute musts, to me, the polarizer and the ND filters are the only ones I HAVE to have with me at all times. Creative filters are falling by the wayside as better software is released with the same effects that can not only be turned on, but also turned off if you decide you don’t need or want them. It is very easy to add color, starbursts, soft focus rings, and countless other creative effects. I will, however, continue to carry my filter systems in my bag to be used in the situations where software will just not cut it.

Whether you choose to use a filter in the field is a very personal choice. I still see people using them, but it is much less frequent than in the days of film and darkroom processing. So, if you are feeling nostalgic and want to see how it “used to be”, grab some filters and start playing!

This is the image directly OOC with only sharpening applied

This image had a graduated ND filter added in LightRoom added diagonally from the top left.

This is the same shot with the graduated ND filter, but also some of the local adjustments with the brushes and a graduated ND from the bottom right to increase the exposure in the rocks.

As you can see, the last image has addressed several issues with the original exposure that a simple ND filter on the lens would not have been able to address. This is a situation where an added filter on camera would simply not do the job that editing software can address.

Photo processing software is getting more powerful and can do many more things now that it could even a year ago. Who knows what is coming and what will be available to us in the future. For now, I will keep my polarizer and ND filters on hand and let the software address mostly everything else.

Becky Chapman is a trip leader with Arizona Highways Photo Workshops.

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